Why Northwestern should negotiate with its football players

Jonathan Daniel

Northwestern could fight the player union movement all the way to the end. Or it could agree to a handful of concessions to players and then reap the benefits.

Northwestern and the NCAA seem to have been fused into one. They're mentioned interchangeably, as if everything that is bad for one is just as bad for the other. What seems to have been lost is that Northwestern and the NCAA are separate entities that can have different interests.

The NLRB's college football union ruling might be very, very bad for the NCAA -- at least, for the NCAA's hope of clinging to its current model -- but this doesn't have to be bad for Northwestern. In fact, it could be the best thing that has happened to Northwestern football in a long time, if the players go forward with the idea and then the university takes advantage.

When the ruling came down, Northwestern announced right away that it will appeal to the national board in Washington, D.C. It was a predictable move, but one that could end fruitlessly. The national board has to at least take Chicago NLRB director Peter Sung Ohr's decision into account, and since its board includes Obama appointments, it's generally considered to be pro-union.

Most people speculate that if the university loses its appeal, it will then refuse to bargain with the athletes and the case will move to the courts. At that point, it would be the only course of action that could stop the union, assuming players do end up voting to join it.

So here's a novel idea that probably needs to be discussed a bit more in Evanston: don't fight it. Don't set yourself up for a PR battle, and don't spend more time in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Instead, set yourself up for success at the expense of the NCAA, which right now looks like it's tied to your hip, negative connotations and all.

Some writers, including Fox Sports' Clay Travis and Bylaw Blog's John Infante, have already touched on this, saying that Northwestern can be the first school to use the movement for its own benefit. Travis' argument was that Northwestern should go ahead and pay players, though CAPA is not trying to get its players paid at this point, and it doesn't plan to ask for anything that would get the university in trouble with NCAA rules. CAPA isn't expected to push for pay-for-play, and that's not what Northwestern needs to give.

There's an unsubstantiated fear that this movement will change everything we know about college sports. That always happens when there's change to a major institution, and the outcry often ends up being hyperbolic. Did a union kill the NFL? Did free agency kill baseball? Did professional athletes kill the Olympics?

Basic collective bargaining doesn't go out the window with CAPA, as if Kain Colter can just walk into athletic director Jim Phillips' office, demand a six-figure salary and full health insurance for all Northwestern players, and get whatever he wants. Unions negotiate; they don't suddenly get a free-for-all.

It would give Pat Fitzgerald one helluva recruiting pitch: we'll give you a bunch of stuff that other universities won't.

Here's a plausible situation: under the initial collective bargaining agreement, Northwestern agrees to give players helmets that help prevent concussions; concussion experts on the sidelines; full-cost, five-year scholarships; and guaranteed medical coverage for sport-related injuries for all athletes over their first five years of leaving school. (Those all coincide with some of CAPA's goals and are affordable for any Big Ten school.) Northwestern also refuses to pay players salaries, if that's even proposed.

So ... what's the harm there? Where's the union-created fireball that's going to be the death of college sports?

Not only does this plan keep the "Northwestern refuses to negotiate with players" headline out of the nation's sports coverage, it would give coach Pat Fitzgerald one helluva recruiting pitch: we'll give you a bunch of stuff that other universities won't, plus you have actual representation at a place that's proven it's willing to negotiate with it's players. For at least a little while, Northwestern would be the only school that could say this to recruits. And a recruiting edge is the most important edge a football program can have.

Northwestern could agree to guarantee players better medical and academic care than any other school could. And why not? Kelley L Cox, USA Today

Fitzgerald believes that his players are student-athletes, not employees, but now that the label has changed in the view of labor law, why not pounce? David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune argued that this ruling might convince Fitzgerald to bolt for a better job, and that the university might have trouble reeling in a new coach. But given that a low championship ceiling due to academic standards is the biggest thing going against the Northwestern job, a potential recruiting advantage is not a bad thing.

This is no doubt bad news for the NCAA, since public schools would have to attempt to form their own unions, all of which would be asking for different things. It's easy to envision a league with some unionized schools and some non-unionized schools, all of which can offer different benefits to recruits — a nightmare scenario for the competitive balance the NCAA covets.

But Northwestern shouldn't care about competitive balance. No, the Wildcats won't suddenly be flushed with five-stars battling for spots in Evanston, but for a player who's considering, say, Northwestern or Notre Dame, who's to say those protections wouldn't push NU over the edge?

If you look at it from the perspective of an outsider -- the way Ohr likely looked at the ultimate union decision -- it's really a no-brainer for the university. Don't fight the union, concede things that cost minimal amounts of money in the long run, improve your recruiting, win more, and make more money. Everyone wins!

In my three years covering the program, I've been stunned by how much Northwestern cares about the images it's created for itself -- the APR scores, the student-athlete success stories, the idyllic images of the academic-minded school that works harder than everyone else to compete in football. Northwestern can't bear the thought of admitting what is already true: that football players are there for football. Unionization would seemingly contradict the thing most important to the program — that they do it the right way.

The problem is, Northwestern and the pro-NCAA crowd have become so enamored with this right way of doing things that they have forgotten to open up to the possibility that the right way might be different now than it was 50 years ago. And, if Northwestern decides to turn medical and academic improvements into recruiting gains, the right thing can also be what's best for business.

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